As fans of data-driven marketing, we were inspired to look into this controversy by conducting research to determine whether press releases are still worthwhile.
To get your brand in front of people, you need publicity. Nowadays the publicity you receive must also bring you some serious SEO value. To get the best possible mentions and links, you need a journalist to make them appear (needless to say, the top links come as a natural result of your PR efforts). Therefore, you will have to figure out an effective way to get noticed and to contact the media. You can write a press release and distribute it with the hope of catching journalists’ attention — someday. Because who has time to read a press release in today’s world when we are all easily and constantly distracted by terabytes of new information? However, while marketers have been lamenting the death of the press release for some time now, a lot of companies still think it has value.
We were especially curious to know if sponsored content can serve as a viable alternative to press releases and earn companies the same media coverage and attention from journalists. In order to learn how press releases hold up to sponsored content, we decided to measure the effectiveness of the two by analyzing more than 200,000 sponsored posts and press releases in collaboration with Alex Tachalova, independent digital marketing consultant and SimilarWeb. We are especially grateful to SimilarWeb for their assistance in data analysis.
Disclaimer: The findings we present in this post show results for a specific period of time (for the last 6 months). Obviously, this data could change in the next month. Therefore, the percentages we discuss here should be seen as dynamic variables that map out trends, rather than constant and absolute indicators.
The dubious future of the press release
Who turns to press releases nowadays?
The first question we wanted to address was what kinds of companies still use press releases and why.
In this article, we’ve provided stats about what industries use press releases nowadays (we also included brand names when possible). The top three industries that regularly post press releases are (note that we used the same categories as given in the SimilarWeb tool):
Computers and Electronics
It turns out that technology companies are leaders in distributing press releases: 36 percent of the press releases in the PR Newswire sample and 23 percent in the PRWeb sample were posted by software and hardware brands. Interestingly enough, data from PRWeb showed no obvious leaders in terms of brand names, except for HalfPriceSoft. However, PR Newswire happens to be lucky enough to have such “regular clients” as IBM, Microsoft, Oracle and LG. Also, NetSuite, Inc. and the German company SAP SE have published and distributed the highest number of press releases through PR Newswire as well.
We discovered that 11 percent of press releases in the PR Newswire sample and 14 percent of press releases in the PRWeb sample belong to companies in the health industry. Press releases in this category usually announce the launching of new medical technology products or inform readers of new studies by presenting abstracts of research papers. Yet, there are a lot of press releases published by medical associations that deliver news about various industry events and conferences.
Marketing and Advertising (Subcategory of Business and Industry)
Surprisingly, a large number of small digital marketing agencies use press releases. Our calculations revealed that four percent of the press releases that we retrieved from PRWeb are from small digital marketing agencies (for the PR Newswire sample, the share of press releases from marketing agencies is six percent). We checked several of them and found out that almost all have recently appeared on websites with little traffic and low domain authority. We assume that small agencies are publishing press releases in order to acquire their first backlinks.
The results we obtained are quite surprising. First of all, we would never have assumed that marketing agencies still use press releases as part of their marketing campaigns. Neither would we have expected to see so many press releases published by brands that fall under the “Health” category. However, we think that spreading the latest news through press releases might be an industry-specific tactic for health care providers and associations, as they usually need accurately presented facts that will speak volumes to their audience, rather than a fancy pitch. Another curious fact is that even multinational technological corporations still use press releases. Our guess here is that technologies evolve so quickly that there are always a lot of updates that need to be made public, and for big brands with international names, it is easier to share technicalities with journalists in a press release.
Yet, it remains questionable whether press releases are effective PR tools on their own. To figure this out, we checked several metrics.
The effectiveness of press releases: social signals vs. backlinks
Not long ago press releases were deemed a great source of backlinks. However, Google no longer allows companies to use press releases to boost their SEO. This means that your press releases should only contain nofollow links, otherwise your website could be penalized. However, press releases can still generate backlinks, as well as social signals. In this section, we’ve provided stats on how effective press releases are in terms of social signals and backlinks.
As we all know, a great viral post will earn a large number of social signals along with a decent number of referring domains. On average, a press release published on prnewswire.com will get 42 shares, while articles on prweb.com will get 61 shares per post. These numbers are extremely small and they point to the fact that press releases cannot provide you with the desired level of engagement that brings visibility to your brand.
As our next step, we decided to look at the top three industries whose press releases got the largest number of social signals (more than 1,000). We discovered that these brands belong to the following categories:
- Computers and Electronics
- Photography (Subcategory of Arts and Entertainment)
Our results demonstrate that press releases prove to be rather effective for the industries that still use them (i.e., for Computers and Electronics and Health). We also think that Photography ended up on our top three list because adding media (images or videos) to a post will increase the number of social signals it receives. What’s particularly noteworthy is that our findings show that brands that have the largest amount of social signals are also those brands that turn to press releases only once or twice. This means that they tried using press releases, but, apparently, found new ways of impressing journalists through social media channels. Ironically, brands that have the least amount of social signals keep trying to advertise via press releases.
Yet, when it comes to backlinks, press releases tend to be ineffective. Our data revealed that only 0.07 percent of press releases published on prweb.com are link-worthy, i.e., have more than 300 referring domains. Also, only 0.05 percent of press releases on prnewswire.com have more than 300 referring domains in their backlink profiles. Therefore, in light of their small number of backlinks and referring domains, press releases are ineffective when it comes to building search visibility. The pattern we find is that even if a press release has earned a decent amount of social signals, the links it generates are still of poor quality. In addition, according to SimilarWeb, both prnewswire.com and prweb.com receive a relatively small percentage of traffic to their domains (see the table below).
When you’re out of options, release some news
However, press releases are not entirely useless, as they can be used as a stepping stone into search engines and content aggregators. While press releases are overused in the SEO world, they do pass some link juice to websites (because usually they have “healthy” domain ratings: for instance, according to Ahrefs, the domain rating of prweb.com is 568 and the same metric for prnewswire.com is 452). Therefore, if a brand hasn’t come up with a solid PR strategy, it can always start with press releases. Yet, despite the media coverage your brand can get from press releases (press releases are still being widely distributed among various media platforms), links from press release websites will still be low-quality links, since they do not reach out to a target audience.
However, you will always get high-quality links if you post your content on a newspaper website. To get effective publicity, you need to ensure that your content will get published on news websites. If you get a link from a newspaper article, your site is headed straight to the top of SERPs. Should you want to leverage such an opportunity, you can opt for sponsored content. Another question that hasn’t been answered yet is how to craft high-quality sponsored content that will increase your brand awareness and bring you links.
Sponsored content that works: what you need to know to get noticed
The trouble with press releases is that while they are usually widely distributed, they won’t help you get media coverage, as they don’t spur further publications. In that respect, a large quantity of press releases almost never turns into quality. As a result, marketers have to seek out new effective content promotion methods. Sponsored posts could be a good alternative to press releases, as they allow you to choose where your content will appear and control what it says.
How do you measure the effectiveness of sponsored content?
Native ads can be a powerful tool, but the question still remains: should you invest in them? Can sponsored content be as engaging as editorials? In this section, we’ll investigate the performance of sponsored posts compared to those made by contributors. Let’s evaluate some of the key metrics of sponsored posts, drawing on the Forbes example.
First of all, we wanted to show you the difference between the engagement rates of sponsored posts and press releases. As we mentioned earlier in this post, a press release is shared 62 times on average. However, if we check the same metric for sponsored posts on forbes.com, we will see that a sponsored post gets 628 shares on average. The difference is drastic.
Furthermore, in the case of forbes.com, it is easier to measure their content’s performance, since the website allows you to track views, i.e. how many times a particular piece has been read. We found that sponsored posts on forbes.com are viewed an average of 5,540 times. When your content is not only widely shared, but valuable, people will definitely read it, hence your brand awareness will skyrocket. Yet, the secret to getting people to vouch for your brand is to create sponsored posts that will be as objective and useful as an editorial post.
While being a high authority website, forbes.com seems like a perfect place to publish your sponsored post. But surprisingly, our results show that the sponsored content on Forbes’ website doesn’t get a lot of views or SMM signals when compared to editorials. However, editorial content performs very well if we evaluate it on its own. When we looked at the number of SMM signals and views for the editorial content on Forbes’ site, we found even higher numbers: an editorial post on forbes.com gets 1,047 shares on average, while the average number of views per editorial post is 12,817. Therefore, one could argue that even ridiculously expensive subscriptions on Forbes’ BrandVoice (which only big corporations can afford) cannot guarantee you good results from your publicity.
It was also interesting to make a list of industries that are likely to turn to sponsored content. In particular, we wanted to find out how this list would be different from the one that features industries that still opt for press releases. We selected the top ten brands that use sponsored content for promotion (to do so we counted the number of times each brand appeared in our sample):
- SAP is a provider of business software
- Oracle is a software company
- The YEC (Young Entrepreneur Council) is an organization comprised of the world’s most successful entrepreneurs
- CenturyLink is an American telecommunications company
- ADP (Automatic Data Processing) is an American provider of business outsourcing services
- Cargill, Inc. is a provider of food, agriculture, financial and industrial products
- IBM is a technological company
- Fidelity Investments is a financial trading company
- Teradata is a leading provider of enterprise analytic technologies and services
- Northwestern Mutual is a financial services company
The list above shows us that a lot of brands that use sponsored content for promotion purposes yet again fall under the “Computers and Electronics” category. Interestingly enough, these results replicate our earlier findings concerning industries that use press releases, except this time the list we made also includes financial companies. When we filtered brands by their number of shares, we saw that Oracle, Cargill and SAP have continually topped the list of the companies that produce the most shared sponsored posts (we mentioned these companies earlier among the brands that still produce press releases). However, if we take a look at the brands that are leading in the number of views, we will find that OpenText (a company that develops and sells enterprise information management systems), Salesforce (a cloud computing company) and Medidata Solutions (an SaaS technology company that specializes in clinical data applications) are the three leading brands that create the most viewed posts.
Pay, don’t spray and pray: how to invest in your sponsored content
Now let’s move on to the next topic: where to publish your sponsored content. How can you find a platform that will specifically address your needs? How can you invest in sponsored content with your mind, rather than your heart? To delve into these issues, we compared metrics for posts on forbes.com with metrics for posts produced by other newspaper websites. In particular, we tracked unique views and SMM signals for NYTimes.com (another big media outlet) and for searchenginejournal.com (a targeted media platform specializing in marketing).
- We discovered that there are almost no high-performing articles on Search Engine Journal’s website in the sponsored content category. The average number of views per sponsored post on SEJ is 1,817 and each also gets 406 shares on average. When we saw these relatively small numbers, we started reviewing the quality of the sponsored content on SEJ manually. It turns out that, in most cases, companies try to publish explicitly commercial posts on Search Engine Journal’s site. Usually such posts don’t add any value to the reader, and, as a result, they get a very small number of views. However, we found an interesting example of a high-quality sponsored post that also performed well in terms of views and social signals. This post, which was sponsored by Ahrefs, is at first glance entirely commercial, as it is about the brand itself. Yet, it offers value to the reader, since the post explains how to “steal your competitor’s search traffic.” We noticed that when sponsored content addresses customer’s pains or solved their problems (e.g., how-to posts), it always gets a great number of views and social signals. In this particular case, the post has 3,500 views and 776 shares.
- Interestingly enough, sponsored posts that run on nytimes.com create as much engagement as editorial content does. We assume that this is because sponsored posts on nytimes.com are as good as editorial content: they are objective, informative, well-designed, and they always include engaging pictures, videos or infographics. To see for yourself, check out this famous post about female inmates who were paid by Netflix. What we want to stress here is that this post doesn’t explicitly tell us about the show Orange Is the New Black, which was promoted in this post, rather it touches upon much broader issues that tie together the series and the post. But the quality of this post is mind-blowing: it is well-design and well-written, educational, and it includes videos and GIFs. Anyone would want to read and share a sponsored post like this.
Drawing on the results we described earlier, we can also state that the future belongs to content that is featured in newspaper websites (i.e., sponsored posts like those that The New York Times features via its TBrandStudio). Such content also brings more quality links and social signals compared to press releases.
The undoubted benefit of sponsored content is that it is exclusively devoted to your brand. Yet, you need be careful when crafting such posts, since, to be effective, they need to be as useful to your readers as editorial content. Our advice here is to create great stories about your brand – this is always a winning strategy. The authority of the domain on which you publish your content is important, but it won’t help you in your PR efforts, unless you offer high-quality content that bring value to your readers. You should not see your sponsored content as an advertising campaign. Instead, readers should feel that sponsored posts they read are high-quality and objective, so that they can start building trust with brands that provide them with news.
The goose that laid the golden egg: the formula that will help you choose where to buy sponsored posts
In this section we address the following question: which platforms are best for content distribution. The problem here is that not every media platform provides you with a unique views counter: some websites do not allow you to evaluate what type of engagement you are getting from your sponsored content. It is a well-known fact that one cannot estimate an article’s number of reads by the number of SMM signals, since these two metrics do not correlate directly with each other. Moreover, even after you’ve published your article on a particular website, you still may not be able to learn how many times it’s been viewed, since a lot of websites and online journals hide their view counters. It seems only logical that you might want to be able to see such metrics in order to know how much coverage your story is getting and whether you’re getting a good value for the money you spent on your sponsored posts. Yet, if you cannot get your hands on the website’s cookies, it’s almost impossible to assess your content’s performance. In order to solve this problem, we created a formula that will show you how many views you are likely to receive for a post on a particular website. To create this formula, we analyzed 200,000 sponsored posts retrieved from 50,000 news websites, online journals and blogs. We used SimilarWeb’s data to gather stats on those websites’ traffic metrics. We also leveraged data from specialized marketing and news websites (both international and local) that display view counters and used that data to determine indexes for our formula. Our resulting algorithm predicts how many people will click on an article posted on a particular website. Based on this algorithm, we designed our Unique Viewers Estimator, which calculates how many readers you can expect after publishing your post.
It not only helps you evaluate how your content will perform, but it will also show you which news website is best to post your content on and meet your business needs. Moreover, after you compare the potential coverage opportunities for your future content, you will be able to decide which website offers sponsored content at the most reasonable price. Learn more about our innovative tool and see how useful our counter is by following this link.
Our initial research question was which type of content performs better: a press release or a sponsored post. As a result of our analysis, we were able to come up with some stats that prove the efficiency of sponsored content. Ideally, judging by the numbers we provided here, you should opt for sponsored content, rather than a press release. However, press releases can be very effective in the early stages, especially when your budget is small and you’ve just started gaining publicity. The utility of press releases can be also proven by the fact that many technological companies with internationally renowned names still interested in publishing press releases.
In this post we learned that sponsored content can create as much engagement as editorial content, as long as it is relevant and useful for your targeted audience. Therefore, sponsored posts can be a very effective tool to leverage in your PR campaigns. Our research also has shown that sponsored content brings more quality links and social signals than press releases do. Yet, we found that, paradoxically, a lot of small digital marketing agencies still use press releases to gain publicity.
We also told you about our novel tool — the Unique Viewers Estimator. This feature is a counter that predicts how many users will read your article on a particular website, even if the site hides their view counter. We hope that you will use our Estimator and that it will help you gain more publicity and effectively allocate your PR efforts.